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For historical but also geographic reasons, France considers the crisis in Mali one of its top external priorities, and facing the risk of seeing Mopti captured by jihadists, President Francois Hollande ordered the French military to intervene in the Sahelian country.
Forty-eight hours after Hollande's decision to launch "Operation Serval" on Jan 11, former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin expressed his opposition to the Socialist government's decision. As the symbol of the "no" to the US war in Iraq, de Villepin's views matter. He also rightly points at the failures in Afghanistan and Libya evoking a powerful ideal: "La guerre ce n'est pas la France" - "War is not France".
But a moral stance does not constitute an answer to an immediate danger, and the affirmation of an ideal cannot stop the creation of a "Sahelistan", a realm of brutality and obscurantism, by fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or from Ansar Dine.
Since no responsible political leader could accept the making of a "sub-Saharan Afghanistan", firm action had to be taken to stop the expansion of Azawad - which is already a state and has declared secession from Mali - because it is an objective threat to the stability of Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, as well as to Europe's security.
Contrary to what de Villepin implies, nothing indicates that the "neo-con virus" is influencing Hollande's foreign policy. When he became the French foreign minister eight months ago, Laurent Fabius quoted Jean Jaures, one of the greatest figures of pacifism: "Le courage, c'est d'aller l'idal et de comprendre le rel" (courage is to tend towards the ideal and to understand the reality). In other words, the statesman aims to reach the ideal but cannot ignore reality; he has to strike a subtle balance between the purity of his intellectual principles and the imperfection of the world's furor.
Besides, Hollande's government anticipated in a responsible calculation that its resolute action would not increase the divisions in the international community. Before the French president authorized the use of force, the UN special representative for the Sahel region, Romano Prodi, declared during a visit to Bamako in Mali that "the Islamist push is of serious concern and could lead to 'extraordinary' decisions from the international community".
During military operation, Algeria allowed the use of its air space, and, after the French strikes, Thomas Boni Yayi, the chairman of the African Union, expressed support for Hollande's move. While the United States and the United Kingdom offered logistical assistance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized the dangers of terrorist activities in northern Mali.
On the fourth day of the operation, China's Foreign Ministry denounced Malian rebels' latest offensive and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the international response to Mali's request for assistance to counter what he called "the troubling push southward by armed and terrorist groups".
In this context, the Economic Community of West African States is accelerating the preparations for an operation to help Malian troops re-conquer the north, the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, in what will be a long and perilous mission.
On January 29, the African Union will hold a conference in Addis Ababa with potential donors to raise funds for the planned African military intervention in northern Mali. The International Support Mission in Mali, as the African force is called, consists of troops from across the continent, including Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo and Burundi.
When Fabius announced the AU donors at the special ECOWAS meeting on Jan 19 in Abidjan, 13 heads of state from the Western part of the continent, UN Special Representative for West Africa Said Djinnit and AU High Representative for Mali Pierre Buyoya were present to express their support.
But the future of Mali, and the Sahel region, cannot be separated from a long-term effort for socio-economic development backed by a cohesive international community. Radical ideologies flourish in poverty and despair. While the world's per capita GDP is about $10,000, Afghanistan's and Somalia's per capita GDP are less than $600 and $100. And Mali, among the 25 poorest countries in the world with a per capita GDP of less than $700, remains an easy target for extremists.
In close partnership with the AU and the ECOWAS, the European Union, the US and China - Mali's first export partner in 2011 - have the responsibility to design a series of mechanisms to change the Sahel region's path and, by doing so, to demonstrate that they look at Africa not as a field for new forms of rivalries but as a land of synergies.
It is the role of the UN Security Council to create the conditions for better security in the Sahel region, but the call of an international conference on Mali could be useful to coordinate global actions on its socio-economic development.
The French military's action to counter extremism did not affect the cohesion of the UN Security Council. So now is time for a unified community of nations to battle economic exclusion, the long-term ally of terrorism.
The author is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School, Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of Euro-China Forum.
(China Daily 01/21/2013 page9)